Ice baths and contrast water therapy for recovery

Ice baths/cryotherapy and contrast (hot and cold) therapy has been a very debated practice over many years. Ice baths are used by many professional athletes as part of their weekly, some daily recovery regime. The principle belief is that ice baths or cold water submersion allows you to recover faster and reduce muscle pain and soreness after intense training sessions or competition. From elite runners and cyclist to many professional rugby and football players, the post-workout ice bath is a common practice routine.

In addition to the ice bath, some athletes do contrast water therapy (alternating between cold and warm) to get the same effect. The theory behind ice baths is related to the fact that intense exercise causes microtrauma (tiny tears in your muscle fibers). This microscopic muscle damage is actually a goal of exercise as it stimulates muscle cell activity and helps repair the damage and strengthen the muscles (muscle hypertrophy). But it is also linked with delayed onset muscle pain and soreness (DOMS), which occurs between 24 and 72 hours after exercise.

The ice bath are believed to:

  • Constrict blood vessels and flush waste products, like lactic acid, out of the affected tissues.
  • Decrease metabolic activity and slow down physiological processes
  • Reduce swelling and tissue breakdown
  • Then, with rewarming, the increased blood flow was believed to speed up circulation, and in turn, improve the healing process.

Although there is no current protocol regarding the ideal time and temperature for cold immersion routines, most athletes or trainers who use them recommend a water temperature between 10 to 15 degrees Celsius and immersion times of five to 10 minutes, and sometimes up to 20 minutes.

While that’s the theory, conclusive research about the pros, cons and ideal time and temperatures is still a ways off. A Cochrane review of 17 studies concluded there was evidence that cold-water immersion reduced delayed onset muscle soreness, when compared to rest or no intervention. Contrast water therapy was shown by a review of 13 studies to have some evidence that it was better at reducing exercise-induced muscle soreness recovery than passive recovery or rest. There was no difference in muscle soreness between contrast water therapy, cold water immersion, active recovery, compression, or stretching (and thats why we offer all the above mentioned techniques of recovery!)

The information that is available indicates the following:

  • Active recovery is generally still accepted as the gold standard, and arguably, the best way to recovery after hard exercise. 
  • Cold water immersion after a single hard workout offers pain relief and may, in fact, help recovery.
  • Alternating cold water and warm water baths (contrast water therapy), may help athletes feel better and offer pain relief.
  • Passive recovery (complete rest) is not an effective way to recover. 
  • Hot baths after hard exercise may hinder exercise recovery.

What to expect when you do a ice Bath at the ARC:

We’ve chosen to use the following parameters for ice baths as it doesn’t kill you but makes you stronger! 10 minutes of immersion at a temperature between 10 and 15 degrees Celsius. That delivers enough time to get all the benefits and avoid any risks.

Ice baths can make muscles tense and stiff 30-60min after.
We advise doing our full service that involves ice baths combined with compression and hypervolt massage afterwards to warm the muscles up again and for the biggest improvement.